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Do people really want brands to get this close to them?


By Erik Saelens, Founder

March 20, 2020 | 11 min read

Brands need to engage with us. Brands need to draw us into a personal relationship with them. Brands need to gather people around them in communities of like-minded fans.

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

Brands need to start a conversation with us. Up close and personal: that is how digital marketing gurus see the future of brand marketing. I doubt very much whether consumers see it like this too.

Personally, I’m not particularly interested in a flirt with my brand of peanut butter, house insurance or energy supplier, thank you. Don’t get me wrong, as a marketing professional as well as a person, I’m very much into brands.

I love brands, love everything about them, and I passionately believe that without them, we wouldn’t enjoy our lives as much as we do today.

But they need to know their place. And no matter how many zillions of euros, pounds, or dollars they spend on digital ‘relationship’ marketing, they can forget about consumers thinking about marrying them.

It’s not digital, it’s psychological

What makes people like brands and even fall in love with them? The brutal and honest answer is that nobody knows this for sure.

We hardly know how we fall in love with another person. It is just not a rational process. Love and affection are deeply psychological feelings, most of the time totally and utterly irrational. Love in general is something only poets and Hollywood scriptwriters could begin to describe and even they have a hard time doing it.

So how can digital marketers think they know what will make people start to love a brand more than just by its advertising, its products and services, its tone of voice or its general presence?

If they do, maybe they should quit marketing and start a dating app or agency and get very wealthy indeed.

As it is, however, don’t quit your day job yet, guys. Instead, have a rethink about the capability of digital flirtation with people. You’ll probably come to the same conclusion as I have: people don’t like being courted by e-mail or tech-driven ‘personalised’ ads and content.

A brand relationship isn’t the digital two-way street it is now presumed to be. It is pretty overambitious to think that a constant barrage of emails, newsletters, personalised content or ‘exclusive’ offers will keep a flame burning inside consumers.

The love for a brand can only go as far as the hard-won trust in its products or services. People can be influenced by brand advertising to have a preference for some brands over others when it comes to making purchases. It is a feeling about a brand that is hard to explain. It is not quite rational as it is not quite emotional either.

A brand is a strangely mixed bag of hard facts and sweet spots. People can tell you they are truly fond of your brand, but fail to explain why it is then, that they still bought this other brand’s television, vacuum cleaner, credit card or whatever.

Love for a brand, if you could even call it love, is all about context. People are wooed by a brand’s universally attractive story that speaks to a part of them they don’t even know was there in the first place.

Brand personality still counts more than anything

It starts with a brand presenting itself as likably as it can, presenting itself as a solution to a problem, or as a smart invention that wakes a slumbering demand inside consumers. It creates context by way of an entertaining, interesting, or fascinating presence in mass-media. Here, it does all it can to depict its character, targeted at a whole bunch of people that might like what they see or hear.

Brands will slowly build a brand personality that fits their brand positioning and their propositions and will, at some level, connect with their target audience’s lifestyle choices. In the digital marketing industry, everybody talks a lot about the power of ‘relevant content’.

To me, it is incredible nobody talks back to them by pointing out that brand communication has always been about relevant content from way back to the start of the advertising industry. Because it is rather hard to build brands on the basis of non-relevant gobbledygook.

And the strangest thing about all this talk of relevant content is that so much of digital content and advertising is anything but relevant.

A friend of mine, a communication professional himself, occasionally uses the hotel booking site He told me: “What keeps amazing me is that when I have booked a hotel in, say Venice, this email pops up from a hotel booking site with the question: 'You have booked for Venice, where are you going next?' What is that about? They suggest they know me - they address me by my first name - but this mail alone shows me that it is just some algorithm at work, not the brand. It is content that misses the point and if it does anything at all it is that it annoys me”.

Now, I won’t deny that personalised emails and content can work for brands on a more rational level, supporting sales drives or as a research tool. But no brand will ever start being loved more because of a ‘personalised’ social ad to a selective group of people, based on - hello and goodbye privacy - data that was sold to the advertiser.

It just doesn’t work like that; no more than it will work for a physics professor to talk about his extremely exciting progress on micro parts on a first date with a nice companion. To get something of a fire going between a brand and people, a brand has to keep on building its overall brand personality. Even then, it will be something close to a miracle if people do get attracted to a brand so much they prefer it blindly over others. Because a brand will always be a brand. The very best brand personality will still not make a brand become a person.

People love brands? That’s just a matter of speaking. People love their partners and kids, their family, and some close friends. They love their pets. They love their football team. They love Maria Callas or Miley Cyrus.

Then come brands. Some of them. At most.

Brands are businesses, not family or friends

In this digital age, it may seem the relationship between brands and people has changed and will change further to turn into a true bond. Because, you know, social media and such. But isn’t that wishful thinking from the ranks of digital marketing people? In the past, people have had a relationship with a brand on the basis of how they presented themselves and the image they created.

Today, it is true that brands have to make sure they come out from behind the curtains and work on their reputation. How true are they behind the veneer they have created? It is important for them to come up with the goods all the time. It is essential for their good name, and it will add to their brand personality if they prove themselves worthy of the trust of their clients and customers.

Do they need to engage with consumers to achieve that? Do they spend more on trying to form a warm relationship with them? I wouldn’t go overboard with that if I were them. Why try so hard to get close to your customers who are already looking favourably on you? Why force yourself on them all of a sudden?

People don’t like to feel pushed. They already feel pushed by the ever progressive and aggressive digital approaches brought on to them by the likes of Facebook and Google, with all those ‘personalised’ ads popping up on every webpage they visit.

The chance this will backfire in terms of loss of trust is bigger than many digital marketing parties think. It is like you know a good friend for 10 years and suddenly he starts talking about personal things about you that you have never ever told him yourself. Surely, that would make you look at him strangely.

Brands can reach people better than ever all right, but that doesn’t mean that they will bring them closer to themselves. Individually aimed content and communication will never touch a deeper emotion as well as an emotionally driven commercial can. Brands who keep focusing on building their brand personality in a universally visible way will move faster ahead in awareness and brand preference than brands who go for the digital breadcrumbs strategy.

When tracking feels like stalking

You can be a true fan of a brand from afar and stay that way happily. No need to get into a conversation with that brand. It might even take the magic away. The magic is the feeling you, as a human being, as a person, as a consumer, have developed for something up there that is, in truth, highly abstract.

For most people, that kind of relationship is all they want. They like the brand, they have had good experiences with it, and they trust it. If that’s the way it stays, it’s fine by them. Stick to your story, brand, keep up the fun you have shown in your advertising, keep respecting me as a customer - that is more important than me receiving a scary personal e-mail from you out of the blue.

Brands have taken a big leap following the pied pipers of digital marketing, who are whistling happy tunes about the need to get ever closer to consumers. As a brand owner, you would do well to reconsider how far you want to go with people. Do they really want and like your brand keeping that close an eye on them?

Do they really appreciate your near-constant attention at every move they make? Do they really see online mail as being different from the offline direct mail they used to find on their doormat? Do they really find your unsolicited “content” as interesting as you think they do?

A brand is a great thing. But that will be all it will ever be. A thing, never a person. Something to trust, something to help people choose and add some value to their lives.

Be happy with that and build on it by keeping a respectful distance, thoughtfully knowing when they might need you, as if you were a pro-active butler.

Keep your algorithms in check. Don’t go overboard with them, thinking people won’t break up with you. They will if they feel pushed into marriage. In a heartbeat. You will find out, painfully too, that it is just not that kind of relationship.

And wouldn’t you look silly if you had to go on a Tinder-like app for desperately lonely brands?

Eric Saelens is the founder of Brandhome.


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